Israel Halperin, CM, mathematician, human rights activist (born 5 January 1911 in Montreal, QC; died 8 March 2007 in Toronto, ON). Halperin advanced mathematical knowledge in the fields of operator algebras and operator theory. (See also Mathematics.) He became embroiled in the Gouzenko Affair in 1946 when he was accused of being an informant for the Soviet Union. After this ordeal, Halperin returned to his post as a professor at Queen’s University, later also teaching at the University of Toronto. Beginning in the 1970s, he created letter-writing campaigns that aimed to end human rights abuses and free political prisoners.
Israel Halperin was born to Solomon Halperin and Fanny Lundy, who were Russian Jewish immigrants. ( See also Immigration to Canada.) His father was an insurance salesman. Halperin had three siblings, all of whom became accomplished professionals. His sister, Clara, became one of the first women lawyers in Canada. One of his brothers, Ben, played violin with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, while the other, Bill, was a mathematician who was killed in the Second World War.
Halperin attended secondary school at Malvern Collegiate Institute. At the University of Toronto, he earned a Bachelor of Arts degree, followed by a Master’s degree. Halperin then registered for his PhD at Princeton University. He was the only graduate student taken on by John von Neumann, considered one of the fathers of modern computers. Halperin earned his PhD in 1936 with his dissertation, Adjoints and Closures of Linear Differential Operators.
In 1939, Halperin returned to Canada and became a mathematics professor at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. He had four children with his wife, Mary. They all went on to become high-achieving individuals. His son Steve became a dean at the University of Maryland. His other son, Bill, became a physics professor at Northwestern University. One of his daughters, Mary, became a doctor, while the other, Connie, became the head of Vancouver’s Terry Fox Laboratory.
Espionage Charges and Acquittal
In 1942, during the Second World War, Halperin enlisted with the Royal Canadian Artillery. He helped to develop explosives and weapons. In 1945, Halperin attained the rank of major. With the war’s end, he returned to Queen’s University.
In September 1945, a Russian intelligence officer at the Soviet embassy in Ottawa named Igor Gouzenko defected. He told Canadian authorities that Soviet spies were working in Canada and the United States. The startling revelation led to the establishment of a Royal Commission to investigate the allegations, and to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) searching for treasonous activities.
The commission discovered that Halperin was associated with Gordon Lunan. Lunan worked at the Canadian Information Service while leading a spy ring, called the Lunan Group, that reported to the Soviet embassy. In secret documents, it was discovered that Halperin was called by the code name Bacon. In 1946, Halperin was arrested and held for five weeks at an RCMP barracks and not given access to a lawyer. He was charged with a breach of the Official Secrets Act.
When brought before a tribunal, Halperin refused to be sworn in and refused to speak. Even when finally allowed to see his lawyer, Halperin would not say a word. The main witness in the case, Lunan, refused to testify against Halperin. This led to Halperin’s acquittal.
Halperin then faced an internal hearing at Queen’s University. Some of Halperin’s contemporaries sent in letters of support, asking the university to let him keep his position. The chancellor of Queen’s was afraid firing Halperin would create embarrassment for the university. In 1948, he was allowed to return to his position as a professor of mathematics.
For the rest of his life, Halperin refused to talk about this ordeal concerning the spy ring and his university posting.
Israel Halperin was a brilliant mathematician. He published more than 100 peer-reviewed papers and co-wrote several books that advanced the understanding of applied mathematics. Some of his most significant works include Introduction to the Theory of Distributions (1952), Coordinates in Geometry (1954), and On a Theorem of Frobenius (1955). When John von Neumann died in 1957, Halperin completed two of his unfinished books and ensured that his Princeton mentor was listed as the author.
In 1966, Halperin moved to the University of Toronto, where he continued to do internationally recognized work. He established a group of researchers who pioneered studies in operator algebras and operator theory. He initiated an annual national meeting of mathematicians called the Canadian Operator Symposium. Halperin retired from the university in 1976.
Advancing Human Rights
Israel Halperin worked to free those who were imprisoned by their government due to their political views or activism. When he learned the details of a particular case, he wrote polite but firm letters to the prisoner’s head of government and published them in the media. In this way, he informed others of what was happening and the head of government that the whole world was watching.
He created a one-man organization called International Campaigns for Human Rights. Eventually, scholars from around the world, including over 100 Nobel Prize winners, were co-signing his letters and writing their own. Halperin’s efforts helped to free Russian scientists Yuri Orlov and Anatoly (Natan) Sharansky, Uruguayan scientist José Luis Massera, and Myanmar’s Nobel Prize winner, Aung San Suu Kyi.
Halperin challenged governments that were perpetrating indiscriminate human rights abuses. In the 1980s, for example, Halperin worked to end the use of imprisonment and torture by the Augusto Pinochet regime in Chile. He rallied the support of dozens of academics and religious leaders from around the world, of Canadian mayors and federal politicians, and more. In an eight-page letter he listed the respected people who were appalled at what was happening and sent it to newspapers, Pinochet, and other Chilean political leaders, demanding that the flagrant human rights violations end.
Honours and Awards
Israel Halperin was the recipient of many awards and honours, including:
- Fellow, Royal Society of Canada (1953)
- Henry Marshall Tory Medal (1967)
- Member, Order of Canada (1989)
- Honorary Doctorate of Laws, Queen’s University (1989)
The University of Waterloo established the Israel Halperin Prize in 1979. It is awarded every five years to someone within 10 years of earning their PhD who is doing outstanding work in operator algebras or operator theory.